Shane Kelley’s Lawyerly Lineage

The estate attorney's ancestors trekked by horse and wagon to Fort Lauderdale, where his great-grandfather hung his law shingle. The rest is history        

Published in 2008 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2008

In a family that has produced 11 attorneys in four generations, Shane Kelley is rightfully curious about his genes.

"Lawyering seems to be in our DNA," the 36-year-old attorney concedes with a laugh. His most recent claim to fame was being appointed administrator ad litem in the probate proceedings to decide where Anna Nicole Smith would be buried.

Much of the traceable history of Kelley's family is rooted in a seaside village in Florida that would become the thriving city of Fort Lauderdale. Kelley's clan of counselors honed their legal skills while playing a pivotal role in developing the city and region.

"[The Kelleys] are one extraordinary family—not just for the sheer volume of attorneys they have, but for how committed each is to the practice and to the profession," says St. Petersburg attorney Sandra Diamond, incoming chair of The Florida Bar's Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section.

Kelley's great-grandfather, Charles Evert Farrington, traveled from Texas by horse and wagon with his family and a cow, and settled in South Florida in 1913. He opened a law office and was called on to administer justice and write laws. He helped found Broward County two years later, and would be elected Fort Lauderdale's third mayor.

Farrington's son, Cecil, was the first of his generation to join in the family trade. Like his dad, Cecil Farrington was active in his community. Two more siblings soon joined the family firm, including Cecil's sister Charlotte, among the first women in the state to graduate from law school, and brother Otis, who became a circuit court judge.

Their sister Phyllis married William Kelley, also an attorney; that couple's son, Rohan (Shane Kelley's father), joined his dad's family law practice about four decades ago. Rohan Kelley narrowed the firm's focus almost exclusively to trust and estate matters, where his true interest lay.

Still, going into the family business wasn't always a given for Shane Kelley. An English major in college, he heretically considered becoming a college literature professor. "I nearly became the black sheep of the family," he says with a laugh.

Joining the firm also meant hewing to the family practice specialty—but this actually worked out well. "I know it sounds funny, but as soon as I started working in trusts and estates, I knew I'd found my calling," he says.

He would soon be among the youngest in Broward County to be board certified in his specialty, and would go on to add a valuable L.L.M. degree in tax law from the Graduate Tax Program at the University of Florida College of Law.

 "There are some people who are born to be lawyers, and [Shane] is one of them," says Dennis Calfee, a professor of Kelley's at University of Florida's Levin College of Law.

"He's a lawyer's lawyer—incredibly bright and just dynamite at what he does. ... If you have a trusts-and-estates issue you need help with, talk to Shane."

That Kelley's father is also an excellent attorney, as was his grandfather, shouldn't be discounted, says fellow Fort Lauderdale trusts and estates attorney and longtime family friend Henry Zippay.

 "They really are a remarkable family—not just as lawyers, but as good people," Zippay says.

Kelley acknowledges that being welcomed into the family business sure beat having to forge his own career path, but it was hardly a sinecure. Like any family member in the firm, Kelley was expected to tackle any and all cases, however puny or punishingly complex. Drafting a simple will was to be given the same thorough care as developing a courtroom game plan involving millions of disputed dollars in trust. Long hours and weekends at the office were the norm.

"My father always said you can't litigate a contested will if you've never written a will. And you can't sue someone for breach of fiduciary duty unless you've overseen the administration of an estate," Kelley recalls.

The family firm has had only one interruption in its decades-long history, when in 2004 Kelley, his father and their law partner, Thomas Topor, were asked to join Holland & Knight to spearhead the development of a Florida contingent of the firm's national fiduciary litigation practice. Within two years, they were back practicing as a family. "We just missed working as a family team," Kelley says.

The family's longtime beach-view offices had since been wrecked by Hurricane Wilma, so they were forced to find temporary space. Rebuilt offices were slated to be completed before summertime.

Kelley and his family firm have also seen big changes in the types of clients and cases they get. A clientele of mostly older, wealthy people from the Northeast has given way to a younger set of entrepreneurs whose wealth was built in the Sunshine State. And the booming popularity of trusts as a means of preserving and passing on wealth has meant more courtroom battles over trusts.

"Very rarely do we see disputes involving family estates, but with trusts, it's epidemic," Kelley says.

Keeping with another family tradition, Kelley is busy helping to craft much of the state's trust and estate laws. A former chair of The Florida Bar's probate rules committee, Kelley has penned chapters of the Bar's book about state probate rules and is working to help the state clarify rules about disposition of bodies in the wake of high-profile family feuding over the late Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams.

Kelley also spends considerable energy and time evangelizing to newbie and wannabe lawyers—particularly minorities—about his legal specialty.

"People would be flocking to the practice if they only knew that it's anything but dusty and dull," he says.

One of Kelley's first trips into the courtroom put him in the middle of the epic tussle by famed jeweler Harry Winston's two sons over the most prestigious diamond emporium in the world.

More recently, Kelley found himself interviewing Anna Nicole Smith's mother, Vergie Arthur, and Smith's last boyfriend, Howard K. Stern, during the fight over the former Playboy Playmate's probate proceedings. The assignment of administer ad litem put him smack dab in the middle of one of the world's most public legal dustups, an incredibly complicated saga of celebrities, riches, an accidental death by overdose of prescription drugs, and a tug-of-war over Smith's infant daughter, Dannielynn.

Of course, being a player in such celebrated cases can have its downside. When, during the Anna Nicole Smith case, Kelley gave his office phone number to a member of opposing counsel, millions of TV viewers also heard those same digits.

"I couldn't answer my phone for a month after that, because every person in the country obsessed with Anna Nicole was trying to call me to give me their advice about Anna Nicole Smith," Kelley says. Hundreds of people implored Kelley to speak to them because they could reveal essential information about devious motives on the part of various players in the Smith case. Never mind that they had never actually met any of the parties involved.

When not working for clients, and to attract fresh legal recruits to his field, Kelley considers the future of his family firm. Only two of the family's four current attorneys work there. Brother Sean Kelley practices in St. Augustine; sister Tae Bronner in Tampa.

True, his dad boasts 11 grandkids, but law school—if it happens—is a ways off for most.

"My daughter Kaelin is only 7 now," Kelley muses. "But it would be great to add a fifth generation to the family firm."

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